EPA Takes Big Step Towards Lasting Protection for Alaska’s Bristol Bay

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency took a big step towards establishing lasting protection for Alaska’s Bristol Bay when it announced plans to resume work to protect the region’s wild salmon fishery from the devastating impacts of large-scale mining operations like the proposed Pebble Mine.

This is good news for our environment, economy and national food security. The Bristol Bay salmon fishery is the largest wild salmon fishery on earth, producing half of the world’s commercial supply of wild sockeye salmon, sustaining 14,000 annual jobs and generating roughly $1.5 billion in annual economic activity. As other salmon runs continue to decline or struggle to recover, this year Bristol Bay broke all historic records, with an astounding 65 million wild salmon.

In order to protect this phenomenal resource, the Obama-Biden administration used its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act in 2014 to propose limits to mine waste disposal in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed. These proposed protections (known as the Proposed Determination) underwent years of scientific review and received overwhelming local, state and national public support. Then, in 2019, the Trump administration tossed the proposed protections before they were finalized.

Now the EPA is back on track. Last week, the agency filed a joint motion in federal court announcing its intent to reverse the Trump administration’s decision and restart the protection process. The EPA’s decision follows the recent Ninth Circuit court decision in Trout Unlimited et al. v. Pirzadeh et al., which revived a district court case filed by Earthworks and our partners that challenged the Trump administration’s 2019 illegal withdrawal of 404(c) proposed protections for Bristol Bay. The Ninth Circuit concluded that EPA may “withdraw a proposed determination only if the discharge of materials would be unlikely to have an unacceptable adverse effect.” In its announcement, the agency acknowledged that it does not believe that the 2019 Trump administration withdrawal met this standard.

A broad coalition of Bristol Bay Tribes, commercial fishermen, businesses, investment firms, jewelry retail companies, restaurants and conservation groups have been advocating for the EPA to complete the 404(c) process over a decade. Time and time again, the people of Bristol Bay have called on the EPA to protect the salmon fishery that powers the economy, feeds their families and sustains their culture.

Here is a timeline of events over the past six months leading up to last week’s announcement.

March, 2021: Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay submitted a letter to EPA urging the agency to use its Clean Water Act authority to protect Bristol Bay’s wild salmon.

March, 2021: Congressmen Jared Huffman (CA), chair of the House Natural Resources Water, Oceans, and Wildlife Subcommittee and Peter A. DeFazio (OR), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee formally urged EPA to use its 404(c) authority to protect Bristol Bay.

April, 2021: Thirty-seven regional, state, national and international groups, including Earthworks, sent a letter to EPA urging decisive action to protect Bristol Bay.

April, 2021: Fifty investment firms representing more than $105 billion in assets called on EPA to permanently protect Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine.

June, 2021: Businesses for Bristol Bay released a letter to the Biden administration and Congress from more than 200 companies and industry associations urging support for permanently protecting Bristol Bay.

July, 2021:  United Tribes of Bristol Bay urged the Biden administration to finish the job of protecting Bristol Bay, with an ad campaign calling on the EPA to restart the 404(c) process.

August, 2021: Forty-six local, state, national and international organizations and representing tens of millions of people sent a letter in support of the requests made by United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Bristol Bay Native Association and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation following the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision.

August, 2021: United Tribes of Bristol Bay sent a letter to EPA urging the agency to resume the 404(c) process.

September, 2021: United Tribes of Bristol Bay, commercial fishermen, the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and conservation groups like Earthworks delivered thousands of comments to the EPA in support of Bristol Bay protections.

We are celebrating this important milestone today, but we know our work is far from done. The Biden administration must finish the job of permanently protecting Bristol Bay and fulfill their commitment to its people.

Thanks, EPA, for taking this important step!